Tuesday 4 December 2018

Late-Edwardian fairytale: Stanford's The Travelling Companion

Stanford: The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, David Horton - New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights/New Sussex Opera)
Stanford: The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, David Horton - New Sussex Opera
(Photo Robert Knights/New Sussex Opera)
Stanford The Travelling Companion; David Horton, Julien Van Mellaerts, Kate Valentine, Pauls Putnins, Ian Beadle, Felix Kemp, dir: Paul Higgins, cond: Toby Purser; New Sussex Opera at Saffron Hall Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A rare revival of Stanford's final opera proves sophisticated and engaging entertainment

Who knew that Charles Villiers Stanford wrote operas? Whilst much of his music has been investigated over the last 20 years, his operas have been largely ignored. So all credit to New Sussex Opera for reviving Stanford's The Travelling Companion, which is not some failed jeu d'esprit but a mature work written in 1916.

In fact, Stanford wrote operas consistently throughout his composing career, despite varying success. The first was The Veiled Prophet (written in 1879 and premiered in 1881), and the last was The Travelling Companion which was written in 1916 but not performed until 1924, after Stanford's death. The work was not ignored, receiving a number of performances into the 1930s including one directed by a young Michael Tippett, as well as being performed at by Sadlers Wells Opera.

Stanford: The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, Kate Valentine- New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights/New Sussex Opera)
Stanford: The Travelling Companion - Julien Van Mellaerts, Kate Valentine
New Sussex Opera (Photo Robert Knights/New Sussex Opera)
The enterprising New Sussex Opera has been touring its revival of Stanford's The Travelling Companion and we caught the final performance, on Sunday 2 December 2018 at Saffron Hall (a performance which was being recorded live for issue by SOMM records). Toby Purser conducted, and the production was directed by Paul Higgins, with David Horton as John, Julien Van Mellaerts as The Travelling  Companion, Kate Valentine as The Princess, Pauls Putnins as The King, Felix Kemp as The Herald and Ian Beadle as The Wizard.

Libretto by Henry Newbolt is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Evidently the tenor Harry Plunket Greene read the story and was convinced that it would make a good opera for Stanford, who turned to Newbolt for the libretto (Stanford had set Newbolt's verse in Songs of the Fleet). The result is a fairy-tale opera in much the manner of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel (which had received its first UK performance in 1894). Newbolt was a poet and novelist and The Travelling Companion seems to have been his only opera libretto. It is serviceable, and full of neat touches, yet hardly scratches the surface of the tale, taking everything at face value without considering complex psychology. One can only imagine what a librettist like Hugo von Hofmanstal might have made of it.

The plot is much simplified from the Hans Christian Andersen original. John, a religious young man who has inherited some money from his father, takes shelter in a church during a storm and prevents a pair of ruffians robbing a cadaver by paying them off. Now penniless, he follows tales of a princess looking for a husband. A mysterious stranger appears and becomes John's Travelling Companion. The princess is in thrall to a wizard but The Travelling Companion helps John win her hand. Only then, debt paid, The Travelling Companion must return to his grave, the dead man whose debts John had paid.

In some ways, it is Turandot 10 year's before Puccini's opera but the princess and her riddle are only part of the plot. There is much emphasis on John's loneliness and need for a friend, and the parting between John and The Travelling Companion is very touching (made even more so by the fact that Newbolt and Stanford fail to supply a consummatory final duet for John and the Princess). But neither Newbolt nor Stanford delve deep, there is no touch the erotic in John and the Princess's relationship, nor of homoeroticism in that of John and the Travelling Companion, nor is the Wizard particularly macabre. The opera is designed to tell the tale, and let us make our own connections via Stanford's richly rewarding music.

Paul Higgins' production was simple yet effective, designed to fit into a variety of venues including Cadogan Hall (which has no orchestra pit). Isabella Van Braeckel's designs concentrated on the costumes, setting the piece in the period of the opera's composition.

What gives the opera its distinctive cast is Stanford's extensive use of the orchestra so that there are long symphonic interludes and the whole has very much a symphonic cast. And whilst New Sussex Opera's orchestra was on the small side, under Toby Purser's sympathetic direction it gave fine account of Stanford's richly expressive, late Romantic music. The style was very English/Irish and perhaps a touch four-square at times, but with a dramatic cast which we do not experience much in English music at this period. Yes, you could tell that Stanford knew his Wagner (he had been at the second Bayreuth Festival and had conducted Wagner's operas in the UK), but this was not slavish and there was a lightness of touch to the writing as well as some magical orchestral textures.

David Horton made an appealing John, bringing out the character's good-heartedness and naivety with out making him into a simpleton. Horton sang with lovely straight, lyric tone and brought out the plaintive nature of John's need for a friend. In fact, despite the romantic entanglement with Kate Valentine's princess, it was the relationship between John and The Travelling Companion which was the primary one in the opera. There were times when the balance rather too much favoured the orchestra, but Horton never forced and kept a beauty of tone and line throughout.

Julien Van Mellaerts made The Travelling Companion a bluff, hearty man whose mysterious nature we only gradually came to appreciate. Van Mellaerts sang with engaging tone. Yet in the few occasions when The Travelling Companion shows his otherworldly powers, such as the scene where he hears and mysteriously echoes the princess's inner thoughts, Van Mellaerts hinted at the character's hidden depths. The ending was very British stiff upper lip, it could hardly be anything else given the period of the setting, yet Van Mellaerts conveyed much emotion.

Kate Valentine made the princess a surprisingly human character, she is plagued with doubts and it is this aspect that the opera concentrates one. There is a 'Boys Own' quality to the piece and the princess is more of a cypher for the ideal rather than a human, yet Valentine made us care for her. As her father Pauls Putnins did what he could conveying nobility and perplexity (the character says 'I am perplexed' rather a lot), though the role felt under written.

Felix Kemp made a noble herald. Ian Beadle had great fun with the Wizard's scene, the only moment when the onward push of the narrative halts and Newbolt and Stanford give us some scenic depictions and dancing (here the Wizard was a rather lush and alternative artist with a troop of followers), with choreography by Roseanna Anderson danced by Ayanna Allen, Alan McGeough, Charlotte Todd and Jenn Vogtle. Felix Kemp and Ian Beadle also doubled most effectively as the ruffians in the first act.

The role of the chorus is a significant one, almost an extra character and it is from them that John learns the story of the princess. Their role is often to interact with the other characters rather than simply commenting, and Stanford's writing for the chorus was sophisticated and challenging. Perhaps almost too much so for New Sussex Opera's non-professional chorus, but it grasped the opportunities with enthusiasm and vigour. There are two solo roles taken from the chorus, most effectively played by Tamzin Barnett and Lucy Urquhart.

The acoustic at Saffron Hall seemed to rather favour the orchestra, so we could enjoy Stanford's sophisticated orchestral writing but this also meant that the words rather got lost and I look forward to the recording so that I can explore The Travelling Companion further.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion is not an easy piece, it is a richly Romantic piece of writing with many challenges for all concerned and it is to New Sussex Opera's credit that they brought the piece to life. The work is crying out for a production from an opera company able to mount it with greater resources. Yet New Sussex Opera has again dared to go where others have not, and has done so with immense style, creating an account of the piece which told its story in as engaging a manner as possible.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Profoundly beautiful: Simon Boccanegra at the Royal Opera  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Last Man Standing: Cheryl Frances-Hoad premiere at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • One crazy day: Jonathan Dove on his new opera Marx in London which premieres at Theater Bonn  - interview
  • Landscapes of the mind: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir's Aequa (★★★½) - CD review
  • Antonio Caldara - cantatas for bass and continuo (★★★½) - Cd review
  • Viol music: RCM International Festival of Viols - concert review
  • Naturalism and realism: Puccini's La Boheme with Natalya Romaniw and Jonathan Tetelman (★★★★) - opera review
  • A 20th century monument: Hindemith's five brass sonatas  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Old Bones: Nico Muhly, Iestyn Davies and the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place (★★★½) - concert review
  • Storytelling in music: Kevin Puts and his opera Silent Night - interview
  • Puccini premiere:  Opera Rara gives the original version of Le Willis a rare outing (★★★★) -  Opera review
  • Long time ago: Samling showcase at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A series of concentric circles: Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble  - interview
  • Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions from Christoph Prégardien & Cyprien Katsaris (★★★★★) - CD review
  •  Home

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